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Coronavirus Cabin Fever Can Be Dangerous, Psychologist Warns: 'When We're Stressed & Feel Trapped, Conflict Likely To Increase'

(CBS Local) -- In times of crisis -- wars, terrorist attacks, recessions and natural disasters -- people typically come together. But the COVID-19 pandemic is not a typical crisis and coming together is much more difficult, if not impossible.

Mental health professionals say the social distancing and isolation designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus poses a serious threat to people for whom social contact is a key element of support and treatment.

But there are things you can do to maintain your overall mental health, says Kita S. Curry, PhD, President and CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services.

Curry spoke with CBS Local on Wednesday:

CBS Local: What could the consequences of loneliness be during this time?

Kita S. Curry: Research indicates that isolation can negatively impact the health of your mind and your body. But, the reverse—feeling connected is not based on how many friends and family you have in your life. It's based on whether you feel others truly care for you and are there for you.

Those who live alone have a special challenge right now, though, because people who normally might be in touch, in person or via technology, may be caught up in all the new challenges of daily life. On the other hand, if people in a household are all holed up in separate rooms watching TV, playing video games, etc., they also may be feeling isolated, especially if they are young children or are adults without emotionally fulfilling phone or social media contacts.

The risks of loneliness are compounded by the fact that we are all threatened by a deadly virus that we have no control over except through hygiene and social distancing, and we don't see an end in sight. Helplessness and hopelessness are correlated with a high risk for depression and other mental health conditions, possibly even suicide.

CBS: What are you most concerned about for people during increased time at home?

KC: I am most concerned for the people who don't have homes and don't live in enclaves that are the equivalent of communities. Much of their contact has been with people walking by on the way to work or with residents nearby who have said "hello" and perhaps also learned their names and/or occasionally given them a meal, blanket or money. I know such a person who hangs out near where I work, but now I am at home because I am in a high-risk group. I also am concerned about all other people without homes; they are at higher risk for becoming ill and less likely to have easy access to care.

I am very worried about children and adults who live in volatile home situations. The stress of the pandemic, its impact on families' finances and enforced proximity increase the likelihood of domestic violence and child abuse. No one will know about it, and there will be nowhere to run.

CBS: What are the harms from prolonged cabin fever?

KC: If we don't create a healthy new normal within the confines of our homes, we face a variety of risks, even in homes where domestic violence and child abuse are not an issue. Some of us are likely to engage in bad habits whether alone or with others, such as excessive alcohol use, overeating, etc. Others will be addicted to the news, which only increases anxiety. That preoccupation also means we aren't engaging in positive behaviors and routines. And, of course, when we are stressed and feel trapped, conflict is likely to increase.

You can lessen cabin fever by creating a new universe within your home. If you live with others, talk together about how you will do this, but the same principles apply if you are living alone. Establish routines; get up and go to bed at regular times; make the bed; get dressed like you were going out; eat regular meals; identify projects you can do such as gardening, sewing, exercising or Marie "Kondo-ing" your books, clothes, etc.

1. Connect:

  • Play cards, watch a movie that makes you laugh (also good for your health), do craft projects with your kids.
  • Eat together without smartphones; cook together.
  • Go through the alphabet taking turns saying what you're grateful for.

2. Give: research shows that giving to others is good for your mental health

  • Send a grocery store gift card or a check to someone you know is in need.
  • If you have a bountiful fruit tree, put the extra fruit out, with a sign encouraging neighbors to help themselves (but explain you need the basket).
  • People who live alone, live in silence. Use the phone, unless they are hard of hearing.

CBS: How does cabin fever differ for children versus adults?

KC: Children are anxious when they miss school and their friends. They pick up on their parents'/caregivers' agitation without necessarily understanding it and may fill in the blanks with even worse interpretations. Caregivers need to calmly explain what is going on and reassure them that these changes will help everyone stay healthy. Kids will do better if everything we can control stays as normal possible, which includes predictable bedtimes and meals but also opportunities to be rambunctious and to play. These responsibilities can be seen as burdens or opportunities.

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